While there are many things I like about Tumblr, I have a bottomless appetite for cheap shots at it (e.g. Folsom Prison Feels) and a few serious beefs. The one that I’m here to talk about today is not about Tumblr as a company or platform but Tumblr as a culture, and particularly about the crop of young social-justice advocates coming up through it. Of course I make allowance here for the way that any generation of activists will spend a fair bit of time carping about the next: good lord, just thinking of what particularly vocal second-wave feminists have to say about my cohort makes the roots of my hair tingle.
I want to talk about this problem, though, partially because it’s a failure of thought-rigor that we’re all prone to. I just see it more often in the Tumblr crowd—I have ideas about why that is, but certainly they’re not the only people capable of this fallacy. The fallacy goes like this: given that The Patriarchy and other toxic power systems exist, as unavoidably widespread and oppressive forces, and given that they are a member of a class that those systems do harm to, too many people behave as though the partiarchy (or power system du jour) is a conspiracy that is out to get them particularly.
This is fallacious in both its halves: part of why the toxic power systems are so hard to deal with is that they are not conspiracies, and that they are not after you in particular: it is enough that you are there and you are a member of some disfavored class. Ignoring your individuality is a feature of the system.
I am of course indebted to an older exploration of the matter:
So, there is no one Patriarch, leastaways not outside of Constantinople. There’s no single dude in a nifty hat at the top of the power structure, surrounded by scantily clad women whom he feeds to tigers for his kicks and giggles. If it were only that simple, we could off the old wanker, free the women and give them some trousers, find loving homes for the tigers, and have a great party around the bonfire of his palace (after salvaging all the good art, books, and chocolate). Alas, because the patriarchy is instead a very very old system that has warped everyone’s thinking right down to the sub-rational, axiomatic, non-verbal ideological level, it’s much more difficult to overthrow. (We’ve seen how well wars against ideas work.)
[…] The Gentleman complained that calling the androcentric system of how things are, or male privilege “the patriarchy” personifies it, and makes it seem like a conspiracy theory in which all men are agents of this big conspiracy to keep women down. He said that saying that “the system serves to perpetuate itself,” further personifies something that is, after all, merely a structure put in place by people, and something that not all men support.
The patriarchy is not a system in the way that the Library of Congress system of cataloguing is a system. It’s not spelled out anywhere, no single person or group of people sat down and dreamed it up, and people don’t usually debate its merits over those of any other system that does the same thing. I don’t think even Men’s Rights Activists get up in the morning and think “Dude! I’m so glad I live in a patriarchy! I’m gonna go subjugate me some women today!” Instead we all live in a system that exists on patriarchal premises.
Let’s talk about conspiracies. Conspiracy theories are a mode of thought that we’re all prone to, in varying degrees. This is because as humans, we are pattern-finders. Apophenia is our life. Further, we’re all self-centered—necessarily, for your life should be about you, it can’t healthily be about someone else. This has the side effect, though, that we’re prone to believing that events in the world around us are also about us. Very little that is happening around you in your life is about you, though.
Conspiracy theories, then, are a natural outgrowth of this: they propose that something important is being hidden by malicious actors working in concert. The combination of pattern-finding, self-centeredness, and the simple fact that not all events in the world are comprehensible and few are controllable, can lead any of us to explanations for those events that range into the conspiratorial. A recent incident illustrated the tendency in what I find a grimly humorous way: the 2010 paper “NASA faked the moon landing–therefore (climate) science is a hoax: an anatomy of the motivated rejection of science” tentatively identified that people who think climate science is a giant hoax or a conspiracy, also tend to have other conspiratorial-type beliefs. Unsurprisingly, the rejecters of climate-change science had many criticisms of the paper—which led to the same authors' 2013 paper “Recursive fury: conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation,” whose subtitle basically sums it up (cheap shot interlude: “Recursive Fury” is my punk-covers-of-Douglas-Hofstatder band).
A 2012 paper from the University of Kent uses a different way of illustrating the point:
Conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs. The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement. In Study 1, the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered. In Study 2, the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive. Hierarchical regression models showed that mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively associated because both are associated with the view that the authorities are engaged in a cover-up. The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.
Recursive Fury, meanwhile, uses a six-point set of criteria for conspiratorial thinking:
Nefarious Intent: Assuming that the presumed conspirators have nefarious intentions. For example, if person X assumes that blogger Y colluded with the New York Times to publish a paper damaging to X, then X presumes nefarious intent on the part of Y.
Persecuted Victim: Self-identifying as the victim of an organised persecution.
Nihilistic Skepticism: Refusing to believe anything that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory. Note that “conspiracy theory” here is a fairly broad term and need not involve a global conspiracy (e.g., that NASA faked the moon landing) but can refer to small-scale events and hypotheses.
Nothing Occurs By Accident: Weaving any small random event into the conspiracy narrative.
Something Must Be Wrong: Switching liberally between different, even contradictory conspiracy theories that have in common only the presumption that there is something wrong in the official account by the alleged conspirators. Thus, people may simultaneously believe that Princess Diana faked her own death and that she was assassinated by MI5.
Self-Sealing Reasoning: Interpreting any evidence against the conspiracy as evidence for the conspiracy. For example, when climate scientists are exonerated of any wrong-doing 9 times over by different investigations, this is reinterpreted to imply that the climate-change conspiracy involves not just the world’s climate scientists but also the investigating bodies and associated governments.
I think it’s crucially important here to avoid saying “oh man those conspiracy buffs, they’ll believe anything.” Conspiracy theories are a pattern of thought that we are all vulnerable to. In varying degrees, true, but all of us are vulnerable, and a feeling of certainty is no defense. This is part of why we feminists, we activists, we strivers for a better world, need to especially beware of conspiracy-theory thinking. The patriarchy is not a conspiracy.
We encounter the patriarchy and related toxic power systems most often in a context where they are likely to do us personal harm: of course we take it personally! But you will go grievously wrong assuming that the system (as opposed to individual actors) dislikes you personally. You are a wonderful person but conspiracies, as Mr. Assange tirelessly reminds us, are needy beasts and you are not worth the effort of keeping a conspiracy running. Instead, the patriarchy is a system of interlocking systems, which long ago passed the point where the beneficiaries and those hoping for their table-scraps needed only act in furtherance of their self-interest, without conspiring with anyone else, for the system to be perpetuated. When we are harmed, when we are in pain, it is difficult to believe that it is not about us, but it really isn’t.
Another face of this system is the United States' mainstream media—or to call it more accurately, the propaganda system by which Official Facts are distributed (I am drawing heavily from Chomsky here). This system is harmful to many of us, and has the effect of maintaining elite power at the expense of the common good. It too is not a conspiracy and it does not care about you, the news-consumer, personally. It is just the same: the system is rigged such that actors pursue their own self-interest independently and perpetuate the system in that way. That is precisely why the propaganda system, and the patriarchal power structures in general, are so difficult to push back against: they are in a sense decentralized.
No matter how much power he may personally wield, it is vanishingly rare that a beneficiary thinks of himself as blessed with the power of a system backing him. Indeed he generally has had to expend considerable effort disposing of rivals for that benefit, and takes this effort for evidence of merit. He who reaches the VP suite or the Senate or the upper echelons of an important bureaucracy, has had to do a great deal of work and apply a great deal of ingenuity. What he generally resists seeing, is that someone who did as much work and applied as much ingenuity, but who did not have the benefit of a system of power behind them, would not be rewarded in the same way (they may in fact be punished: there’s a strong argument that lynchings were more an economic crime than a hate crime).
Of course there are still further complications. The baneful power systems that we’re trying to disrupt operate as interlocking systems and at the most abstract level, they are systems of interactions between classes of person (not just class in the economic sense, but in just about any way you can divide people into Us and Them). But the operation of these large systems is to spawn smaller systems, which may repeat the process, until actual work and reification-of-hierarchy gets done at the margins. I am not a class of person unto myself, nor is a police officer, but together we operate the system whereby the state asserts a monopoly on the use and definition of violence.
The reason that it’s important to note this fractal nature of systems is that if you follow it down far enough, you will find conspiracies. Small, petty, cruel conspiracies that ruin lives, bodies, and minds, they are nasty operations—but they are not the system that they are embedded in, rather they are a product of it. However, they are rarer than you might think, because the secrecy criteria is important. Remember that we’re not counting the Family Research Council as a conspiracy: they are actors colluding to do harm to queers, women, and pretty much everyone, but they’re not doing so in secret: they are quite clear about their goals, membership, tactics, etc. They issue press releases. There are plenty of subsystems like them, including some that do target individuals, but we need to resist letting those lure us into conspiratorial thinking.
The six-point scale from Recursive Fury can be useful for pushing against this tendency: it’s not a panacea, but it is a useful reminder that we’re talking about big sloppy human systems, not against powerful, malicious schemers. Thinking in terms of systems is an important part of the activist toolkit, because individual actions don’t happen in a vacuum. They have antecedents and causes. Even on the interpersonal level, a person is not any of their actions: they are at the very least actions and discourses over time, which is very different. For groups, likewise. Conspiracies are rare enough that you should assume that events in the world around you are not the result of a conspiracy, even if they cause you pain and are difficult to understand. Perhaps especially then.
Now, I know a bunch of people who spend a lot of time in the security mindset who’re going to want some caveats to be attached to this. So: there certainly are situations where you’ll want to worry about conspiracies, and some of those conspiracies will have an agenda that amounts to “kill you if you get too inconvenient to entrenched power systems.” The best example is how police departments and the FBI routinely employ agents provocateur against anyone with a remotely anti-hierarchical agenda (to the point of being assholes to Food Not Bombs, wielders of one of the most innocuous activism tactics imaginable). However, these situations are both rare and illustrative that conspiracies are expensive and difficult. The big-picture system being resisted and disrupted, is not a conspiracy.
I started out by talking about Tumblr, but this is a problem that’s specific to human cognition, not specific to Tumblr. Tumblr just happens to be full of young folks, who are normal young folks and thus charmingly overconfident and full of anger, not yet scarred in the specific way that produces a certain pragmatism, a parsimony of causes, and a cynical optimism about others' actions. Age is no guarantee that a person will come around to a productive approach—which is to say, eschewing dramatic first resorts, patient in proportion to how they hope for their own (inevitable) follies to be treated with patience, and always curious as to whether there is some item of mutual agreement that could be worked towards rather than having yet another argument.
That’s the real sin of conspiratorial thinking, if you ask me: by presenting tempting-but-wrong explanations for the world, it will very effectively keep you from getting things done. As you make your way through the world you cannot avoid encountering the painful, the inexplicable, and the unjust. Working against them is difficult—and conspiratorial thinking will sabotage your work. Perhaps we could consider inverting the checklist from Recursive Fury:
Selfish Intent: Assume that other people primarily care about themselves. They’re not stupid, they have a whole life to live, but that life is about them and not about you.
Bemused Observer: Be deeply conservative in assumptions about whether or not people are out to get you, especially in an organized manner. People generally organize for themselves, not for you (see 1).
Judicious Acceptance: Systems made up of humans are messy, not neat, and almost never elegant. Dramatized stories about them almost always leave out the screw-ups, friction, and dawdling. If a conspiracy looks excellently efficient, slick, and deft, it might not exist.
Acknowledgement Of Accidents: Plenty of things happen by accident or without planning. Account for impulse and coincidence when you account for people’s actions.
If There’s No Plan, It Can’t Be Going Wrong: Acknowledging that much of the world is not just beyond your control, but beyond anyone’s control, undermines the idea that a conspiracy is bending events towards their ends. Of course the world is not quite as you would like it—but you are just like everyone else in percieving that the world is imperfect.
Open-Ended Reasoning: Avoid at all costs becoming locked into non-falsifiable patterns of thought: if you have a belief that can neither be proven nor disproven, you have a belief that needs to be harshly examined. This is especially true of deciding that people you interact with are malicious or untrustworthy: once you commit to that belief, you commit to a pattern of actions that will make it extraordinarily hard for them to behave benevolently towards you or extend trust to you, and your confirmation bias will carry the day.
Of course this is just a sketch towards the general plan of resisting conspiratorial thinking, but it’s a starting-place and that’s important to have. The point of a starting-place is that you don’t remain there, that you make a concerted effort of getting to somewhere else. The metaphor of travel also gives us this: look at the whole journey from time to time, not just the next step. Cultivate a flexibility of perspective. After all, one way of looking at patriarchy is to call it the conspiracy theory that women are all out to get you.